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Green famine

This phrase has begun to appear in newspapers, particularly with reference to Ethiopia, but is as yet hardly common outside relief agencies. It refers to a situation in which the land is green and crops are growing, but in which people are starving. This may be because the rains have arrived too late for crops to be grown and harvested in time to prevent famine; alternatively, civil war and consequent mass migrations may have prevented normal agriculture. It is possible to track the term back as far as 1994 in reports from UNICEF officers in Addis Ababa. There is, I’m told, an older expression in South Africa, green drought, for a state in which there is enough rain for the veldt to be green but not enough for crops to grow. It may be that the expression is a modification of that.

Without additional food aid ... the counter-intuitive notion of a “green famine” may become dreadfully familiar — with food crops growing in the fields as an ironic backdrop to the large-scale migrations and displacements, massive camps and widespread deaths for which Ethiopia, sadly, has become a byword.

UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Ethiopia:
Separating Humanitarian Needs and Political Issues
, Jul. 1999

Like thousands of people across the south of the country, she is starving to death in a “green famine” brought on by three consecutive years of crop failure.

Independent on Sunday, Aug. 2000

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 21 Oct. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/turnsofphrase/tp-gre2.htm
Last modified: 21 October 2000.